Monday, April 9, 2012

The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives

By Shankar Vedantam

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

I liked this book.  It is well-written, the stories are engaging, the research is impressive, and, overall, the author’s point is not only well-presented, but it is well-supported too.

I have always believed there was a hidden brain.  “The reason people have no awareness of the hidden brain is that it is usually not accessible through introspection” (p 43).  I loved Vance Packard’s book, The Hidden Persuaders (Ig Publishing, 2007).  It was published 40 years ago, and when it came out, I read it from cover-to-cover and found it informative and insightful.

I enjoyed all of the various ways Vedantam applied his argument (that there is such a thing as a hidden brain).  He applied it to work and play, mental disorders, bias, gender and privilege, disasters, terrorism, extremism, the death penalty, politics and race, and genocide.

One of the things that makes this book a fantastic read is that Vedantam tells the stories in such detail, and with great specificity and exactness, that it is easy for readers to identify with the characters and the scenes.  This is truly an art, and for readers it offers great pleasure — even though not all the stories are positive and uplifting.

What is absolutely outstanding about this book is that it creates a paradigm shift.  That is, once you read this book, and once you know what is going on in your brain, you begin to look at life differently.  That is, you become more cautious, more sensitive, and  
more aware.  It isn’t that you won’t be guided by your hidden brain ever again, because many of the responses we make because of it are part of our nature; “there is nothing we can do about it” (p. 254).

This is the reason this book is so important: “But there is something we can do about our actions.  We can choose to allow our actions to be guided by reason rather than instinct . . . But putting reason ahead of instinct and intuition is also what sets us apart from every other species that has ever lived.  Understanding the hidden brain and building safeguards to protect us against its vagaries can help us be more successful in our everyday lives.  It can aid us in our battle against threats and help us spend our money more widely.  But [understanding the hidden brain and putting reason ahead of instinct] can also do something more important than any of those things.  It can make us better people” (p. 255).

“. . . Reason is our only rock against the tides of unconscious bias.  It is our lighthouse and our life jacket.  It is — or should be — our voice of conscience” (p. 255).  That is the same message I taught my basic, speech-communication students for 22 years.  Your only protection is to relax, be patient, take your time, do not make a hasty judgment, collect the necessary facts, and draw only tentative, qualified conclusions until all the facts are in.  That is the important story in this book, and that is precisely why it’s essential reading.

The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives can be purchased at

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